LeadingAge Magazine · January-February 2018 • Volume 08 • Number 01

At 67 years of age, I am a senior citizen. I’m an elder. In the eyes of my 17-year-old godson, I suppose I am an old-timer.

Over my many years in aging services, I have learned that language is important. Language can draw you in. But, it can also push you away. Our “industry” has always struggled with what words to use to describe those we serve because the words we use often get in the way of our success.

William Dionne
William Dionne (photo courtesy of
Hechler Photographers)

My own father, though very proud of the work I do leading the Carter Burden Network in New York City, once told me that he would never go to a “senior center.”

Taken aback—because Carter Burden operates a network of extraordinary centers—I asked him why.

He said, matter-of-factly, “Because they’re for old people.”

It’s as if the words “senior” and “old” were profane.

My father is not alone in his feelings. I have heard pushback on every possible word that is used to describe people 60 and older.

Our failure to embrace the language of aging is indicative of the deeper problem of ageism in America. It’s everywhere. And the consequences are significant. In the world of philanthropy, only 3% of all foundation dollars go to fund services for the aging. Some years ago, a well-known and respected nonprofit with which the Carter Burden Network worked suddenly canceled its committee on aging because old people were no longer a priority.

In the arts, voices of older artists are frequently silenced. Opportunities to exhibit their work are hard-won and often difficult to achieve. While only a small part of the solution, we opened the Carter Burden Gallery—a spectacular professional gallery with 3 distinct exhibition spaces that give older and recognized artists an opportunity to show their work and engage in current contemporary artistic discourse. The result has been beyond our wildest dreams. This year alone we’ve had 900 artists from around the world seeking to show their work with space for only about 36 shows every year.

Ageism is also apparent in the way we talk to an older person. We infantilize them in our speech. We disrespect them. “How are we doing, Hon?” “Have we had enough to eat, Sweetie?” As if the collective “we” and “Hon” are appropriate and respectful ways to address someone who could really teach you a thing or 2 about life.

Even dedicated medical professionals are guilty of taking the voice away from older patients. Who hasn’t had the experience of accompanying a parent to the doctor and having the physician direct the conversation to you and not your mom or dad?

Aging: It’s what we’ve been doing since the day we were born.

And as Atul Gawande notes in Being Mortal, “But age no longer has the value of rarity. In America, in 1790, people aged sixty-five or older constituted less than 2 percent of the population.” Today in the United States, 47.8 million of us are age 65 and older—that’s almost 15% of the population. And we are the fastest growing cohort in the country. Embracing the aging process—a natural, beautiful process—and fighting ageism, therefore, becomes an imperative for every American.

At 67, my life is a celebration. I have always loved the concept of growing old. I grew up in a family where age was revered. When I was a child, visits from my great grandmother, Josephine Dorr, would cause sheer delight throughout the household. I can recall watching in awe as Nana, at 86, tucked her long gray braid up under a motorcycle helmet and jumped on the bike with my uncle for a ride around the countryside. That same summer, she built a bookcase for my brother—a coveted and still sturdy family heirloom to this very day.

Never afraid to speak her mind, my great grandmother was, and continues to be, the voice that inspires me to come to work every day.

This I have learned: Seniors have a voice. It is a strong and important voice. We cannot allow ageism and the fear of growing old to take that away.

William Dionne has been the executive director of the Carter Burden Network, a network of centers, programs and services across New York City, since 1991. He has worked in the aging services field since 1975.